Looking ahead

By Ken Ungar

“Prediction is hazardous, especially about the future.” The old proverb is true.

But I did it anyway.

I went back to read my writing from early in the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s interesting what we knew then, what we know differently today and what we still don’t know. Based on the events leading up to today, let me share some thoughts and related best practices around the sponsorship industry in Q4 2020.

Heavy reliance on social media

Everyone predicted that digital and social would take on increasing importance. This forecast was not a bold prediction. When we can’t gather as humans, we turn to the web and social handles for connection.

Strategically, CMOs began using social more on brand building and customer retention. They made investments in this area at the outset of the pandemic. Partly because of higher social media usage in general, those investments paid off.

However, I thought more sponsored events would turn to social media to replace the lack of exposure from no-attendee events. I saw some activity in this area. However, in televised events, the networks were not enthusiastic about helping sponsors outside the broadcast, as they were protective of maintaining their audience. Additionally, more sponsors seemed to focus on creating new on-camera advertising opportunities than tying a sponsor to an audience digitally.

For sponsors and properties, social media best-practices evolving during the pandemic include lessons for event professionals. However, I enjoyed an excellent piece by our colleagues at the Marketing Accountability Standards Board, highlighting how current social media practice can drive “accountable sponsorship.”

The rise of virtual events

Once it became clear that COVID-19 would be an event crusher, many organizations turned their attention from live sponsored events to virtual ones. Like live events, there were good virtual events and not-so-good ones. Early in the pandemic, we saw sports try to create virtual events like the NBA, IndyCar, and NASCAR. However, as fan-less events returned, the sports love affair with virtual faded a bit.

Nevertheless, we still see interest in the area of non-profit sponsorship. When a postponed or canceled live event, such as an annual gala or charity 5K, was the source of valuable donation revenue, virtual events seemed like a necessary course correction. This sector of our industry quickly adapted, learning critical lessons like keeping events short, converting attendees to donors, and recirculating the event after the virtual presentation is over. We’ve seen much written on the conversion to virtual, relating to the lessons learned and how-to-guides.

Like you, our clients are hedging their bets in 2021. Some projects are moving forward with the expectation that vaccines will open the door to live events in Q2 or Q3 2021.  Others are hunkering down with virtual events. If you’re one of those brands/properties, we’d recommend a few articles, including this best-practices piece. Also, Larry Weil wrote an excellent article for Eventbrite describing the many ways to integrate sponsorship revenue in virtual events.

Further predictions?

Without question, social, digital, virtual, and a host of other tech-centric tools will continue to change the face of sponsorship. As our industry grows in familiarity with these tools’ advantages and disadvantages, we’ll see lasting change in sponsorship beyond the pandemic. And, that’s a forecast for the future that I’ll stand by.

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